In a country notorious for starting nearly everything late, it was surprising that a large segment of the audience for the opening night Monday of the fifth Israel tour by the Alexandrov Ensemble, better known as the Red Army Choir, arrived at the Jerusalem International Convention Center more than an hour ahead of time. For all that, the actual performance started 15 minutes beyond the advertised time.
The ensemble, which during the Communist era was the Soviet Union’s most positive export to the Western world, and continued to be so after the fall of the Iron Curtain, apparently has little attraction for the young.
A goodly number of members of the audience were seniors originally from Russia and had come to indulge in old country nostalgia, clapping enthusiastically in time to familiar folk songs and occasionally joining in.
The ensemble also includes spirited dancers, who, effortlessly and with total synchronization, executed the most complicated steps and spectacular gymnastic feats, such as a series of backward somersaults.
Any fan of Cossack dancing knows that the dance routines will include various examples of fast-kicking squat dancing and high jumping with splits in the air. Less common is the sword dance, in which the solo performer held his sword horizontally and leaping high, kept jumping across it backward and forward.
A truly amazing sight was what might be described as a Russian version of break dancing, in which the male dancers bent down as close to the floor of the stage as possible, and turned themselves into spinning tops.
Some of the female dancers pirouetted at the same breathtaking speed, and for a longer period than is the norm.
While the singers all wore army, navy or air force uniforms in deep olive green, white and blue replete with gold braid, the dancers wore an array of colorful costumes and seemed to be enjoying what they were doing. For them, it wasn’t just a performance. Judging by the interaction between them, it was also a fun thing.
Every item on the program elicited sustained applause, but less so the war songs, which may not have been as well known as the folk songs. Large video screens set up high over the gallery on both sides of the stage featured wartime clips, both from the period of sword-bearing cavalry and from the Second World War, depicting the suffering of the civilian population, soldiers marching off to battle, tanks and planes and exploding fields.
Later, the video cameras zoomed in on what was happening on stage.
It seemed that some, though not all, of the solo singers were mouthing to canned recordings, because there was a lack of synchronization between the sound and the mouthing of the songs as seen on screen, but this could have also been due to some delay in projection, as is the case during simultaneous news broadcasts in which the television transmission is slightly behind the radio. When both are on at the same time, the television sounds like an echo of what has just been relayed on the radio.
One of the great challenges of any trained opera singer is the length of time that he or she can hold a high note. It’s one of the things for which Red Army Choir soloists are noted, and Vadim Ananyev did not disappoint, winning a roar of approval from the crowd. It was almost as if he was in competition with himself and trying to break a record.
Frequently throughout the program, the audience literally went wild and applauded with hands raised in the air and a ripple of cheers running through the auditorium.
MASTER OF ceremonies was Kan broadcaster Dan Kaner, whose voice has been heard for months on radio and TV promos for the show. Kaner was truly in his element, as he told the history of the ensemble, founded in 1928 by Alexander Vasilyevich Alexandrov and later taken over by his son Boris.
The ensemble, which started out as a 12-member choir, grew in size and scope, and now has a total of more than 400 singers, musicians and dancers, with at least 100 on average participating in overseas tours at any given time.
The ensemble has appeared in more than 80 countries, performing for Russian Army units and for mega audiences around the world, in some of the largest and most prestigious concert halls.
Tragedy struck the ensemble in December 2016, when 63 of its members, together with their artistic director, Valery Khalilov, were killed in a plane crash while traveling to entertain Russian troops in Syria.
As traumatic a loss as this was, the ensemble quickly regrouped and recovered and grew even stronger, under a new artistic director, Col. Gennady Sachenyuk, who had been with the ensemble for many years, and is its main conductor, though most of the conducting is actually done by Lt.-Col. Nikolay Krilov.
Soon after the tragedy, the ensemble performed for the fourth time in Israel in 2017.
Wherever it appears in the world, the choir makes a point of hosting a local guest artist, and singing at least one song in the language of the host country. During its current tour, it is hosting the Gevatron kibbutz group of folk singers, which is celebrating its 70th anniversary. Gevatron, which was awarded the Israel Prize in 2007, was founded on Kibbutz Geva in the Jezreel Valley, and now includes members of other kibbutzim in the region.
In October of last year, the Gevatron troupe traveled to Moscow to rehearse with the ensemble. Ilan Gilboa, Gevatron’s musical director, does not speak Russian, and Sachenyuk speaks neither English nor Hebrew. “But their common language was music,” said Kaner.
Gevatron performed several of its best-known songs in Hebrew, and later returned to the stage for a lively rendition of the ever-popular “Katyusha,” which it sang together with the Red Army Choir, taking turns to sing in Hebrew and Russian.
Among some of the perennial Russian favorites on the program were “Kalinka,” “Dark Eyes” and “Moscow Nights.”
The Hebrew song that the choir and Gevatron sang together was “Adon Olam,” with the audience joining in. Given events in Israel over the past week, the choice was entirely appropriate, although taking into account the venue and the fact that Jerusalem Mayor Moshe Lion was in the audience, the expectation would have been for “Jerusalem of Gold.”
The electric atmosphere that the Red Army Choir has consistently conveyed has not dissipated, and at the end of the evening the long standing ovation said it all.
Later, outside the building as people were going home, one member of the audience remarked to a friend that of all the Hebrew songs the Red Army Choir could have chosen, it was amusing that the singers of a country that for so long had sought to do away with religion should choose “Adon Olam.”
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